WHY AND HOW YOUR CHURCH CAN AVOID BEING AN INSTITUTION
by Trevor DeVage
It’s usually sad when a person is institutionalized.
When your aging grandmother becomes too confused to take care of herself, her children institutionalize her.
When your elderly uncle becomes too weak to live alone, your cousins institutionalize him.
When a child with a physical or mental disability can’t function in normal society, he or she is institutionalized to keep them safe and help them survive.
Institutionalization is about protection, not propagation; guarding, not going; building a defense, not mounting an offense.
It’s often necessary for the weak—or the wayward; we institutionalize criminals, too. But when thriving enterprises become institutionalized, it’s never a positive sign of strength.
This is especially damaging when it happens to the church. When the local congregation becomes an institution, inevitably its members are fighting to preserve buildings, preferences, and traditions. Focusing on these instead of the church’s central mission sooner or later leads to a congregation’s death.
Every institution has a shelf life. Companies go out of business. Colleges close. Local churches shut their doors and quit meeting. But when the church becomes de-institutionalized, the only shelf life is the return of Jesus.
There are two warning signs that institutionalization is setting in. The first is preoccupation with preservation. “That’s our classroom. You can’t give it to the children.” “We sacrificed to build on that corner. We can’t move to the edge of town.” “Our attendance is dropping and giving is down, but we have enough in the bank to keep the doors open.” “We’ll consider merging, but we can’t change our name.”
Statements like these ignore the steps that may be necessary for the ministry’s mission to flourish. Unchecked, such a mindset always leads to death. It overlooks a central fact: the church is a force for growth, not an inward-focused institution behind walls meant mainly to protect.
The second warning sign is pride. It may be good for a local church’s members to identify personally with its accomplishments. “We sacrificed to see that building built.” “We gave that organ in memory of our mother.” “I taught that class in that room for 40 years.” “My daughter was married in that auditorium.” But notice the emphasis on “my,” “me,” and “I” in those sentences. When our objection to a change grows primarily out of pride, we’re pushing our church toward institutionalism that will strangle its potential.
A few principles can help us prevent stagnating institutionalism.
• Instead of buildings, mission. I once watched a church slowly die inside a handsome building without a mortgage located in the center of town. Surrounded by a population of about 1,200, this congregation welcomed just 7 worshippers each Sunday, until they all died. Before that end, a thriving congregation on the outskirts of the village offered to buy the building and merge the two ministries. “This building is not for sale,” the main-street church responded. They kept the building and lost their future.
• Instead of preferences, people. I’ll always remember the sermon Ben Merold preached while he was in his 80s after leading a growing ministry when he was long past retirement age. “You must be willing to put up with things you don’t like to reach people who are not like you,” he said. And then he quipped, “I’m still getting used to the Gaithers!”
Change is always challenging, and every growing church has members still getting used to the latest new thing there. When those innovations speak to people outside the church, it’s ready to grow.
• Instead of traditions, transformed lives. Look at the needs around you. Such a search inevitably leads a congregation to try new approaches, conduct familiar ministries in new ways, and pursue opportunities outside the building with strategies and methods never before considered. When the goal is bringing people to Jesus instead of keeping us safe with him inside, the church thrives as it changes and grows. And there’s nothing institutional about that.